Jean-Claude Zehnder

J. S. Bach's earliest autographs

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It was front-page news in 2006 when the discovery of a manuscript was announced, in the library of Duchess Anna-Amalia of Weimar, of organ tablature in the hand of the young Johann Sebastian Bach dating from the year 1700. This is the oldest manuscript of Bach to be found by May 2007 and contains five works -- two lengthy and difficult chorale fantasias by Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Adam Reincken, and three pieces by Johann Pachelbel, two of which are wholly new to the repertoire. In making these shorthand copies for his own use, Bach usefully notes in the manuscript that the pieces are "copied from Georg Böhm" -- while there was little doubt that Bach had some kind of contact with the great organist of Lüneberg, this is the first documented evidence of any such connection. Carus Verlag, publisher of the Bach Archiv Edition, did not allow any time to waste getting out the first recording of these discoveries, J.S. Bach's früheste Notenhandschriften (J.S. Bach's Earliest Autographs) played on an Arp Schnitger organ by Jean-Claude Zehnder.

The Schnitger organ at the church of St. Jacobi in Hamburg is a marvel of seventeenth century engineering, with its wide variety of stops; big, penetrating tone; and faultless intonation, and it is perfect for this music. Zehnder is fully aware of the import of the occasion and rises to it with a performance worthy of the great blind organist Helmut Walcha, who was forced by circumstance to memorize everything he played -- perhaps Zehnder is also playing from memory, as the music has a natural evenness and flow throughout. Of the pieces, the Reincken Choralfantasie An Wasserflüssen Babylon is, at nearly 20 minutes' length, the most imposing; for Bach to be able to play this at age 15 must have astonished his older contemporaries. However, the Reincken is not the work that is most impressive of the new finds; that distinction is accorded to the Fugue in B minor of Johann Pachelbel with Bach's own ornaments. Bach was a most enthusiastic copyist of other people's music in his maturity, and he had a tendency to make small changes in most of the things he copied. Bach's gloss on Pachelbel's Fugue points up the influence Pachelbel's work must have had on his own Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565, perhaps the most famous organ work in the world. This revelation presses forward the notion, advanced by various musicologists over the years, that BWV 565 must be a good deal earlier than the "circa 1708" date that has been accorded to it.

Unfortunately, although the Weimar tablature is new, it doesn't contribute any new original music by Bach himself. The disc is filled out by the oldest datable manuscript of Bach's own music, a four-page exemplar dated to 1702-1705 and consisting of two choral preludes on "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern," one a fragment consisting of only 23 measures (BWV 764) and the other complete (BWV 739). Unfortunately, in its haste to get J. S. Bach's früheste Notenhandschriften out in time to capitalize on the buzz, Carus Verlag slips up, as on the tracklisting it mistakes BWV 764 for BWV 731, the latter not on the recording, and BWV 739 for BWV 764. These pieces are correctly identified in the notes proper, although in the wrong order. As long as one understands that this is merely a careless error, the rest should prove more than satisfactory to assuage one's curiosity about this new manuscript.

This disc presents a side of Bach we really did not know before -- whereas we know of the hothead who got into duels and was thrown in jail by his patron and the harassed, overtaxed kapellmeister of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, this is Johann Sebastian Bach the young virtuoso, with all of his promise and prospects still ahead of him.

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